Ben Morgan: Ready to turn old mates into new foes
Budding No 8 might have worn red for England versus Wales at Twickenham
In the long-off days when grafting at the coalface had a literal meaning, thousands of workers migrated from Gloucestershire to South Wales to hack the black gold and forge mountains of steel and tin plate. Ben Morgan followed the same route east to west to the town they once nicknamed Tinopolis, Llanelli, in order to forge a rugby career for England. At least that is the way it has panned out – it was not the way the No 8, who turned 23 yesterday, planned it.
"I played all my youth rugby from five to 17 and one season of adult rugby at Dursley RFC," Morgan begins to relate, aware that his background, genealogy and motivation are of much more interest in this week before he appears for England against Wales at Twickenham than anyone with two caps as a replacement would normally expect. "I moved to Cinderford, the next biggest club around – apart from Gloucester.
"Things didn't work out as I wanted,I played mostly for the second team. I wasn't in the best of shape at the time. I was unfortunate with injuries, missing trials. I had a brief spell in Gloucestershire's Under-18s, just trial games, and two years for their Under-20s. But at the time when others were getting signed up for academies it just wasn't happening for me."
True, those Under-20 seasons culminated twice in cup finals at Twickenham, both of them victories and one featuring a Morgan try from the base of a scrum. But they were watched by a few hundred diehards, out of the spotlight. Next Saturday Morgan – who, despite the name, has not a drop of Welsh blood in him, or none that his family is aware of – will be bathed by it on a stage that is rugby's West End. And his billing? Made in Wales.
"A couple of Cinderford guys were travelling over from Cardiff," Morgan says. "One of them took a job as conditioning coach at Merthyr and introduced me to Martin Fowler, the club coach. He said, 'Come across, I can promote you into Cardiff Blues' Under-20s.' It seemed promising and as good as his word, I played a few games for them and played against the Scarlets' Under-20s and got a two-year development contract."
Now we can add some pace to the prosaic. The Scarlets' scouts were Simon Easterby, Rob Appleyard and Gareth Jenkins: international back-rowers all. They assigned Morgan to digs in Llanelli and to the treadmill to trim his 20st bulk by 10 per cent; he first learned from, then succeeded in the Scarlets team, the fine Australia No 8 David Lyons.
Last season the whispers rose to a clamour that the all-Gloucestershire boy from Kingswood with the girlfriend from up the road in Uley might be a prospect for Wales, and he would qualify on residency at the start of January. There was a qualified offer from the Wales coach, Warren Gatland – "The only conversation I had was when he told me, 'Don't rush into anything,'" says Morgan – but the choice was easy when Englandmade contact.
"As a youngster I always wanted to play for England, I supported England," says Morgan. "It just happened that my path was through a Welsh club. It's been a different path but equally it's been good for me."
Graham Rowntree, the England forwards coach, was effusive in announcing Morgan's availability in Leeds a few weeks ago. With change all around – specifically Nick Easter dropped and James Haskell in Japan – Morgan went from boy from nowhere to new kid on the block, capped in Scotland – where, aptly for a No 8, he rapped from 8 Mile for his debutant's song on the bus – and given 30 minutes or so in Italy the next week. He has a shot at starting against Wales in place of Phil Dowson, who has been filling manfully a position he rarely plays for his club, Northampton.
"Playing Wales is something that I have relished rather than dreading or fearing," says Morgan, who played most of the second half of the Scarlets' defeat in Leinster on Friday night. "There is always banter – boys singing 'Swing Low' around the stadium – but it is all good fun."
Nevertheless, his insight will be utilised by England, according to the interim head coach, Stuart Lancaster.And with a summer move "home" to Gloucester now mooted, Morgan's Welsh sojourn may be ending a year earlier than expected.
Kieran Read of the All Blacks is the kind of No 8 rated highest by Rowntree – above even Sergio Parisse and Juan Fernandez Lobbe – and the extra bulk and bump and grind is what swings it. For Morgan's first two "involvements", as players and coaches like to call them, in Scotland, he felled Sean Lamont and blasted across the gainline from a scrum.
Whether through pace or footwork or reading of space, Morgan is beating opponents: Scots and Italians and Northampton Saints and Munster men in Europe earlier this season. As Wales's conditioning coach, Adam Beard, will tell you, pace is nothing unless it is converted into power.
If Morgan has got all the above it will put him on the path to his stated goal of emulating his boyhood idol, Lawrence Dallaglio. In return Dallaglio, many people's idea of the last great No 8 to wear the red rose, called immediately after the win in Rome for Morgan to be promoted.
"Wales have great players – I have played with and against them," says Morgan. "But we have got a great squad here that is really going to take it to them. I am really looking forward to this game."
View from the valleys: 'England haven't shown us anything behind the scrum'
Wales legend Shane Williams, who retired from the international game in December, tells rugby union correspondent Hugh Godwin how and why the Welsh will beat England at Twickenham next Saturday...
What advantages does Wales's Warren Gatland, in his ninth Six Nations' Championship as a coach, have over England's Stuart Lancaster, in his first?
Warren is used to these big games and he knows what you have to do to win at Twickenham. That will be an advantage. I know Warren will remind the Welsh guys what's at stake and how good England can be. That will be the difference. Warren's been there, done it. Stuart hasn't seen that side of it yet. But on the day it's down to which team wants it the most.
Do you agree that Wales's try threat dwarfs that of England?
You can see Wales are enjoying trying to create things. They spread the whole field, which shows their intent of scoring tries. Rhys Priestland, Jonathan Davies and George North know each other from the Scarlets and they've got Jamie Roberts and North who are strong and will take the ball forward, with pace behind to beat players as well.
That's a nice mix. England's games have been in poor conditions and ball-handling will have been difficult. Ben Foden, Chris Ashton and Dave Strettle haven't got involved, because England haven't really shown us any rugby behind the scrum or the line-out. But I think that's dangerous for Wales. It will be difficult to assess how to defend, and England do have deadly finishers.
I've played for the Ospreys twice against Saracens this season, and Owen Farrell used Strettle and the pace out wide well. So Farrell is capable of creating things.
Wales have won once at Twickenham since 1988. Did you hate playing there?
It's a daunting stadium, with the crowd on top of you. But I enjoyed it, and I won there with Wales [in 2008] and with the Ospreys [in the 2008 Anglo-Welsh Cup final]. I don't know the measurements but it feels a lot wider than the average field. Maybe it's the way the stadium's laid out. I feel you get a bit more space as a wing and the backs are able to have a runaround.
Coming off two away wins and now being at home, England should be confident. Lancaster will remind his boys it's their turf, their home, and how dare the Welsh boys go there and be favourites and expect to win.
England are keeping squeaky-clean. Wales had two yellow cards at Twickenham in 2010. How does each side's discipline measure up?
I thought Wales did well in Ireland but they gave away a few silly penalties against Scotland last week when they were controlling the game in defence. That's a frustration. They cannotafford to continue that at Twickenham, especially the way Farrell is kicking.
It is a fine line at the breakdown between slowing ball down, winning turnovers and giving penalties away. The Welsh back row is very strong and England will know that Wales will be coming to contest the breakdown and win a few turnovers. Sam Warburton is one of the best in the game at that, when he's on top form.
[Australia's] Steve Walsh will be refereeing and he does allow a contest in the rucks so counter-rucking willbe crucial. It could go either way.If England are squeaky clean and Wales are very aggressive, it could mean a lot of penalties for England – or a lot of Wales turnovers.
Both teams have two wins out of two. What's your prediction?
Having seen the guys play at what Warren Gatland says is 80 per cent capacity, I believe Wales can win. It's not going to be easy or comfortable because England can play far better than they have.
The breakdown will be key, and with Sam Warburton back and Dan Lydiate fit, Wales have the top back row in the Six Nations. If they can get clean ball and win some turnovers, the back line will score tries against anyone in the world. I'll go for Wales by six or seven points.
Shane was speaking in association with Dove Men+Care™, a range of grooming products formulated for men that include antiperspirant deodorants and shower gels. Visit: dovemencare.co.uk
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